Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Steppenwolf: A Novel by Hermann Hesse.
Picador (2002), Paperback, 224 pages

To call this book a novel is to mislabel it. Ostensibly this book is about a loner, a self-described Steppenwolf or Wolf of the Steppes, Harry Haller. Steppenwolf rents an apartment from the initial narrator's aunt and is so weird that the narrator is put off by him. He slowly wins the narrator over with his tantalizing hints of a deeper inner nature. As suddenly as Steppenwolf appears in the lives of the narrator and his aunt, he disappears one day, leaving behind a Steppenwolf Treatise.

The Steppenwolf treatise describes in both first and third person language the split personality of Haller, who believes he is part man and part wolf. The civilizing forces of humanity are always in conflict with the wilder sides of his nature represented by the wolf. The Steppenwolf is at a loss how to reconcile one with the other without feeling like he is betraying or being a hypocrite to an essential part of himself. He soon realizes that dividing his identity into two principal halves is a mistake. His identity is in fact made up of a many selves, each of which can be arranged like coins in three-D chess to manufacture a infinite number of identities.

After months of living like a recluse, the Steppenwolf contemplates suicide, and it is a fortuitous encounter with the seductive and mysterious Hermine that saves him from that fate. Hermine is determined that he should learn to dance, to learn to enjoy everything that he considers low-brow and despises. In doing so, Haller finds that reaching the state of the Infinite is not to live in seclusion and living the high-brow life of contemplation and thought, but to expand the self to include even what is considered low and thus enter into an understanding the Infinite from the opposite direction - by loving, valuing, experiencing all.

Hermine, clearly Herman Hesse's feminine alter ego, tells the Steppenwolf that while he still has to fall in love with her, fall in love with her he must and then he must do her bidding without question. The command she issues him is to kill her, an action that is reminiscent of the Buddha's exhortation to kill the Buddha. Meaning, once the wise Buddha has imparted everything that he knows, he must be killed because he too is shackled by the limits of his knowledge, which imposes artificial boundaries on whoever follows him.

In spite of all these high ideas presented in this book, my main objection to it is how difficult it is to read it. There is page after page of contemplative thought, very little action, and much of it seems like regurgitated Buddhism lite. Why call it a novel then? I can, in fact, think of better people (eg. Joseph Campbell) who can explain these treatises in layman's terms. If the idea was to present Buddhism to an audience that is partially or fully unaware of it, it wouldn't work. Where this book holds value is how the mind of a schizophrenic or split personality works. The constant tussle between our infinite selves is something most of us undergo without giving much thought. This book deconstructs that process for us.

(Review crossposted on LibraryThing)

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